Easily Amused: To the tuba (and the euphonium)

On Thursday, September 27, Lawrence welcomed the SymbiosisDuo for a performance in Harper Hall. The duo is comprised of Dr. Gail Robertson on tuba and Dr. Stacy Baker on euphonium. They are both veteran performers and teachers; Robertson currently teaches at University of Central Arkansas and Baker at Morehead State University.

As a tuba player myself, I was looking forward to this concert. It’s always inspiring to see one’s own creative pursuits expressed at the highest levels of artistry and mastery. Dr. Robertson and Dr. Baker gave a masterclass to Lawrence’s tuba/euphonium studio earlier that day. The quality of their teaching told me that their performance would be at least as impressive.

Robertson and Baker have been performing together as SymbiosisDuo since 2007.  At the concert, Baker told the story of her chance meeting with Robertson at a rehearsal. Baker stated that she was impressed by Robertson’s attention to detail – evinced by the thorough annotations on her sheet music – and asked her if she wanted to play together. They hit it off and eventually founded the duo to help promote and further establish this unique combination of instruments in the musical literature.

I’d wager that the majority of you have never heard a tuba-euphonium duo before. There’s nothing wrong with that. The tuba occupies a strange, liminal niche among musical instruments. It is in some sense a mainstream instrument, being a fixture in several types of ensembles from oompah bands to symphony orchestras. However, it is still unusual enough to be thought of as whimsical and endearingly odd in the same way as the Theremin or didgeridoo.  This is especially true in the case of the euphonium.

A few minutes on YouTube will prove to you that tuba and euphonium players can be just as “serious” about their instrument as a concert pianist or jazz saxophonist. These instruments can produce a beautiful, deep and rich sound. This characteristic timbre remains one of the top reasons why I love to play tuba. It isn’t limited to rumbling subwoofer tones and repetitive oompah lines, either. Both the tuba and euphonium are impressively versatile, especially in such capable hands as those of experts like Robertson and Baker. They are both completely viable as solo instruments, but as the concert demonstrated, they are highly compatible symbiotes as well.

Harper Hall was mostly populated with other brass students and faculty as I waited for the performance to begin. SymbiosisDuo took the stage, joined by piano accompanist Nick Towns. Their opening selection, “Three Florida Orchids” by T.O. Sterrett, immediately showcased the technical virtuosity of both, with constant meter and tempo changes and frantic, complex rhythms.

As they continued, I noticed that the duo was constantly in musical conversation with one another. At various points they asked questions, made accusations and rebuttals, sometimes agreed, occasionally argued vociferously. This wordless dialogue was so understandable partially because playing a brass instrument is like an alternate form of speaking. Brass players endeavor to “sing” through their instrument, simply diverting the energy of the breath from their vocal chords to an array of metal pipes. In addition, the duo’s decade of experience playing together meant that they were harmonious interlocutors.

After the piece finished, Robertson and Baker each played a solo piece. Now they could really show off their individual chops as well as the unique strengths of their respective instruments. Baker’s piece was dramatic and regal, clearly written to highlight the naturally dramatic and regal bass voice of her tuba. Similarly, Robertson’s was soaring and triumphant in a way that was easily expressed by her euphonium’s clear, centered tenor. They played gorgeously, showing what it takes to climb to the top of the tuba-euphonium hierarchy.

The majority of the program consisted of modern music written for tuba and/or euphonium, along with a few arrangements, including one from a Handel harpsichord suite. Another piece, “Cats in the Kitchen” by Phillip Bimstein, featured a pre-recorded accompaniment track complete with meowing cats and assorted kitchen sounds to set the scene. With an intermission, the concert lasted an hour and a half, and I can tell you from experience that playing nonstop for that long is no easy task. Throughout, it was engaging, unexpected and impressive.

I wish more people had been there to see the spectacle. Now that Robertson and Baker have moved on to their next gigs, instead my challenge to you is to listen to something completely new this week with an open mind. My hardcore challenge is for you to bump John Williams’ “Concerto for Tuba” at your next room party.